Satan’s Temptations in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Pt. 2 (Caleb Upton)

PT and Culture

If Dostoyevsky foresaw the rise of the 20th century totalitarian states as the father figures who would feed the masses in the first temptation, what did Dostoyevsky foresee here with regards to his feared future Catholic theocracy? What Dostoyevsky saw was how the captivating of the conscience through miraculous ecstasy could manifest itself, in games and permissiveness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, as well as Lev Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief, both comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Let us compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us. In our exploration of the first temptation, that of changing stones into bread, we saw how Dostoyevsky’s view of that temptation was a profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its resistance to the use of the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. But, like any and all temptations, just because one is resisted does not mean that the tempter will cease trying.

In the second temptation of Jesus, the Satan tempts Jesus to take a leap off the pinnacle of the Temple—for if he was the holy anointed one of God, then there is no great risk, and God will protect him.  Once again however, in an almost ironic fashion, Tolstoy is our source for the ‘traditionalist’ reading of this passage. In Tolstoy’s reading, Satan was unsuccessful in making Jesus succumb to the desires of the ‘flesh’ of eating the earthly bread, because Jesus is able to ‘disregard the flesh’, and is now tempting Jesus to commit suicide, that he could ‘throw off the flesh altogether’ but his spirit would be saved by an ‘unforeseen force’. Jesus in Tolstoy’s reading essentially says, ‘I can disregard the flesh but may not throw it off’ because Jesus refuses to disobey his Father, who for some reason gave him a body to begin with. So, in Tolstoy’s reading, Jesus does not actually disagree with the premise of Satan’s temptation, which is that Jesus does not need a physical body. Jesus only objects to the actual follow-through of the suicide because he will not disobey God, whose will it was to live in a physical body. Tolstoy’s reading gives an apologetic or a clarification of his own ascetic ethic, that while, yes one can fast and one should not divulge the ‘lusts’ of the flesh, one could not take it to the extreme of doing away with the annoyance of the physical body altogether.  With Tolstoy’s reading however, there are two problems concerning the text of the Gospel itself- once again the theme of abstaining from the needs of the physical body is no where present, and no where is the act of suicide made explicit as the temptation.

Going back to Yoder’s reading of these temptations, by evidence of the invocation of the passage from Psalm 91, this is not Satan tempting Jesus to sin, but rather offering temptations to differing options of how to be a Messiah/King. Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, argues that what Satan is tempting Jesus to do in this scene is not to perform “a mere acrobatic marvel” (27) in order to establish himself as a miracle worker, rather Satan is tempting Jesus to assume his Messiah-ship to the point of receiving the death penalty of being thrown off the temple wall, and yet miraculously save himself from such a penalty to be the triumphant glorious Messiah by a spectacular miracle, as opposed to the suffering Messiah. It is here where Yoder and Dostoyevsky converge again. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor, after acknowledging that mere bread would not be enough to enslave a restless people, and that the easing of the conscience is what is needed, replies to Jesus’ resistance of this second temptation that “…man does not seek God so much as miracles.” The Inquisitor also connects Jesus’ resistance to this temptation in the manner that Yoder also in no doubt did, as the refusal to come down from and be miraculously saved from the cross when the mockers jeered at Jesus, “…let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matt. 27:42, RSV). For the Inquisitor, as with the first temptation, the refusal to accept this second temptation meant that Jesus regarded humanity far too highly, and placed upon them a burden of freedom that no slave could accept. The Inquisitor remarks,

“You did not come down because again you did not want to enslave man with a miracle and because you thirsted for a faith that was free, not miraculous. You thirsted for a love that was free, not for the servile ecstasies of the slave before the might that has inspired him with dread once and for all.”

The Inquisitor’s argument concerning the second temptation then is that while it was certainly true that the first temptation was not enough, for the people’s consciences must also be taken captive—the second temptation would be then not to tempt God to perform a miracle, or a acrobatic trick, but rather use the promise of miracle ecstasy in the face of suffering in order to captivate the conscience.

If Dostoyevsky foresaw the rise of the 20th century totalitarian states as the father figures who would feed the masses in the first temptation, what did Dostoyevsky foresee here with regards to his feared future Catholic theocracy? What Dostoyevsky saw was how the captivating of the conscience through miraculous ecstasy could manifest itself, in games and permissiveness. The Inquisitor, says that

“…since man is not strong enough to get by without the miracle, he creates new miracles for himself, his own now, and bows down before the miracle of the quack…even though his a mutineer, heretic and atheist a hundred times over.”

What Dostoyevsky says here, is that even in lack of ‘miracles’ or ‘signs’, humanity will be forced to create its own. An arguable example today of how humanity creates for itself experiences of miraculous ecstasy is through what can be called the sports-industrial complex. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, describes in his piece on his experience of Fenway park how this experience of ecstasy in the sports arena has become necessary as part of our increasing troubling circumstances,

 “The collective euphoria experienced in stadiums, especially among those struggling to survive in the corporate state, gives to many anxious Americans what they crave. They flock to the temples of sport…Many sports devotees return after the games to dead-end jobs, or no jobs, to massive personal debt, to the bleakness of the future. No wonder supplicants at Fenway Park part with such large sums of money to be entranced by fantasy for a few hours.”

Whether its the Cinderella Man’s unexplainable victory in the boxing ring despite the ravages of poverty, or Michael Jordan’s uncanny ability to appear as if he were flying for the dunk—in the midst of a plethora of other examples, people around the world crave for these upsets, seemingly miraculous abilities, and victories over the forces of poverty and gravity that hold us down in the sports arena, just so that their consciences can be put at rest that not all hope is lost.

Dostoyevsky in tandem with the ecstasy of the games also foresaw how permissiveness would be a means by which the captivating of the conscience through miraculous ecstasy could manifest itself—as a miracle of ‘forgiveness’, if you will. The Inquisitor remarks,

“…we shall arrange their lives like a childish game, with childish songs, in chorus, with innocent dances. Oh, we shall permit them sin, too, they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for letting them sin. We shall tell them that every sin can be redeemed as long as it is committed with our leave…”

The sports-industrial complex is also a perfect example of how the miracle of the permission to sin by the powerful, can bring about an appeasement of the conscience in order to captivate people’s minds, in addition to their bellies. We could bring up a long enumeration of the latest scandals to have emerged from the world of athletes and their owners such as concussions, steroids, domestic abuse, racism, sexism, violence in rioting, wasteful spending, changing national laws, destruction of property, exploitation of workers, and so forth—but the most powerful example of this permissiveness can be seen in John Oliver’s first segment concerning the World Cup hosted in Brazil in 2014 on Last Week Tonight. After having exposed the utter corruption of FIFA and the crisis in Brazil brought about by the introduction of the World Cup, Oliver makes a comparison between the soccer giant and the Catholic Church—which, given Dostoyevsky’s fears of a Catholic-esque secular theocracy, can only be an eerie coincidence. Oliver says in regards to soccer,

“It is an organized religion and FIFA is its church. Just think about it, its leader is infallible, it compels South American countries to spend money they don’t have building opulent cathedrals, and it may ultimately be responsible for the deaths of shocking numbers of people in the Middle East, but for millions of people around the world like me, it is also the guardian of the only thing that gives their lives any meaning.”

Oliver’s brutal honesty in this segment is illustrative of almost the entirety of fandom of any sport around the world—“we don’t care how wicked it may be, all is permitted because it brings rests to our souls and captivates our consciences.”

Dostoyevsky’s depiction of Christ’s second temptation in the wilderness, then, is a profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its character as a resistance of the use of the promise of miracle ecstasy in the face of suffering in order to captivate the conscience. The promise of such an ecstasy is well exemplified by not only the sports-industrial complex but by any variety of entertainment such as movies, books, TV shows etc…. For while the promise is that anything is possible, that the forces which you are up against in this world can be overcome by the spectacle of a sudden victory, it remains that these contests are created so that we do not even notice or try to address the real suffering in our lives. In response to this temptation, to simply distract those he came for from their problems by a spectacular rescue, Jesus quotes “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” from Deuteronomy 6:16. Jesus continually keeps in mind the exodus narrative of his own people as he experiences his own temptations in wilderness—and in the context of Deuteronomy the example this admonishment is connect with is the incident at Massah described in Exodus 17. How were the Israelites testing the Lord their God at Massah?—“Is the Lord among us or not?” (v.7) The Israelites not only missed Egypt’s food, but also its spectacles, its idols, it opulent displays of powerful and ecstasy, and they wanted the Lord their God to also play such a role in their lives, to be their game to take away from the suffering they were now experiencing because of their freedom. Following commandments and suffering death were not ‘sexy’ enough, they wanted the glitter as well. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor however knows even that bread and circus are not enough, but that the sword would also be needed in order to fully bring about the universal enslavement of humanity and fulfill “…the same great need of mankind for universal and general union.” It is in the third and last temptation where Jesus’ Messiahship is given the most tempting option of all, coercion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Like what you're reading?

Join our mailing list to receive an email every time we post new content.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!